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Cross Post: Brenda Chapman on Writing BRAVE

by Susan J. Morris
August 18, 2012 11:31 AM
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Susan: Humor is terribly difficult to pull off--especially across age ranges. But Brave was filled with humorous moments, like with the . . . uhm . . . “wood carver.” What tricks do you employ to keep people laughing?

Brenda: You keep yourself laughing.

Susan: What was the inspiration behind Brave,and where do you find inspiration?

Brenda: There are three of my loves that inspired Brave. My love of the old dark Bros. Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen faerie tales, my love of Scotland (I am a great American mutt, but for some reason my Scottish genes scream to be heard!) and lastly and most importantly the love of that bundle of passion, stubbornness and strength that is my daughter.

I find inspiration from life . . . wherever I can get it . . . whenever it speaks to me.

Susan: There are a lot of layers going on in Brave. First, there is the way that history informs the present. Second, the climatic battle was a perfect microcosm of the battle within Merida herself. When plotting your story, how do you make sure all these layers line up and enhance your story?

Brenda: That’s the way you just have to look at it--the story as a whole, working the layers together. Sometimes it works, sometimes you have to start all over and try again. That’s where the rewriting and sto-reboarding come in to it. There is no one way. Each story has a life of its own--layers of its own. You must always be able to stand back and look at the whole to make decisions on the minutia.

Susan: I think this is the first time ever where the climatic battle was fought--and fought physically, too!--between the “mother bear” and the villain. So often, the one who does the fighting is the main character--but it is so much stronger in this story with Elinor being the one to do the fighting. How did you know it was the right call to deviate from the typical plot and let Elinor shine?

Brenda: I’ll be honest with you--marketing made Merida the “main character”, but in my mind, I always considered Merida and Elinor equal characters. Both of their arcs needed to be completed. This movie is a love story between a mother and daughter.

Think about a story like When Harry Met Sally. They both have their own story. We see them both go through their arcs--the completion of which brings them together. That is the same for me for Elinor and Merida.

Of course, I related very much with Elinor’s character. I wanted her to be able to show that she would die for her child, as I would for mine if the choice ever had to be made--as would many mothers. Earlier in the film, it seemed almost that she had forgotten that motherly instinct in thinking she could marry off her daughter as a diplomatic gesture--and it’s what Merida feels and is rebelling against--that her mother isn’t really there for her. When really, Elinor is trying to do the best she can to secure her daughter’s safe and prosperous future--she just doesn’t take what Merida wants into consideration. So when the test comes--she doesn’t have the strength of will to fight off the men holding her down with ropes when her husband is about to kill her, but when she sees that her daughter is about to die, suddenly, she has “the strength of ten men!” She proves her love for her daughter to Merida and to herself.

I know that doesn’t answer your question--but since I don’t consider Elinor a side character, that’s all I had.

Susan: You use a fair number of strong symbols and literal metaphors in Brave--and yet not one of them comes off as cliché or trite, and characters who serve as symbols don’t come off as caricatures or tools. What is the secret to using symbols effectively?

Brenda: It could have been so easy to fall into stereotypes of the Scottish culture, and we did on some levels, I’ll admit. But because the story is universal to parents/families--mothers and daughters in particular--it takes the focus away from relying on stereotypes of the time and place and people of Scotland. We used what came naturally out of those things and used them to support our characters and their arcs.

And in the relationships of the film, I did try to stay away from stereotypes as much as I could.

The secret? I’m all about guesswork and instinct, really. It’s amazing what you can stumble across that way!

Susan: Dialogue is at the heart of great screenwriting. How do you make sure each character has a unique voice?

Brenda: Hire a writer who is better at it than me! I’m only partially joking. I can create characters that are unique from each other, but I do struggle with dialogue a lot of the time. Steve Purcell and Irene Mecchi were so much better at it than me, so I tried to stay out of their way.

Susan: Pacing is key to movies and books alike. How do you maintain the balance of tension, conflict, and restful scenes?

Brenda: I always try to keep the whole--the entirety of the story--in my mind’s eye. If I get too bogged down with looking at a particular part or detail, it’s hard to know whether it will work in the context of the story--both in detail and in pacing. It’s instinct about knowing when you need to speed up into excitement or slow down for the audience to catch their breath. There is no hard-set rule that works every time. It’s all dependent on the story you are trying to tell and what you want the audience to feel at any given moment.

Susan: Do you have a favorite character or scene in Brave?

Brenda: That’s like asking me to choose which child I love most! I love all the characters! I relate the most to Elinor. I adore Fergus--he makes me laugh. Merida’s spirit inspires me. The triplets are just adorable. The Lords and their sons are a hoot . . . The witch! What can I say? They are all my babies.

I do have a favorite scene--one of a few--but this one was there from the get go and has not changed (except for a few things getting rushed through after I left)--when Elinor-bear is able to throw off her captors to save her daughter from Mor’du. That was my “Mom kicks ass” moment. All of us moms have that in us, that mother bear protective rage. What I like about it is that she doesn’t have the strength to save herself from certain death, but when she sees her daughter on the verge of being killed, Elinor finds an inner strength she didn’t know she had, and is a force to be reckoned with!! Fergus couldn’t take down his nemesis, but Elinor-bear’s protective rage could. I always loved pitching that part.

My other favorite is when both Elinor and Merida go too far after the archery scene where Merida wins herself. When Merida slashes the tapestry and Elinor retaliates by throwing the bow in the fire, they both have gone beyond what they should have. Merida is too young and inexperienced to realize her mistake in the moment, but Elinor is quicker to regret and know she has behaved badly. Her remorse gives the audience reason to love her and sympathize with her. Haven’t we all at one time or the other let ourselves cross the line and know that we didn’t do the right thing--set the good example? I do regret how the scene was eventually cut--it was only a few seconds longer, but it gave the characters more time to feel and register their emotions--as well as the audience. It feels a bit rushed to me in its current version. Nonetheless, it still gets the point across, and does its job.

Susan: What do we have to look forward to from you in the coming year--anything you can share?

Brenda: I am developing some of my own projects right now, and considering whether to pitch them to a studio or try a more independent approach. I’m also considering offers to develop and direct at a couple of studios. I’m taking it slow--I’ve been enjoying my down time with my family.

I’m also going to be doing more speaking engagements and mentoring--I’d like to share the knowledge that I’ve acquired over the years. I’d like to get more young women interested in the film industry so that we can have more stories about strong female protagonists.

Susan: Any advice for aspiring writers?

Brenda: Find your inspiration from life . . . wherever you can get it . . . whenever it speaks to you. Don’t give up. Get back up when you get knocked down, for you will get knocked down. Love what you do.


This post originally appeared on Omnicoracious. It was printed with permission.

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  • Olivia Stratton | August 26, 2013 5:53 AMReply

    As much as I love that Brave had a heroine undefined by her looks and without a love interest, am I the only one who noticed that the plot was basically a rip-off of Freaky Friday and Brother Bear? Like, seriously, they couldn't have picked a different animal? Also we never get to see Merida and Elinor actually work out there problems. It's like the moment Elinor becomes a bear their relationship is pretty much healed. She seemed to have a standard case of Restless Princess Syndrom akin to Jasmine. I'm not saying she isn't an improvement over other cartoon princesses. I'm just saying that being more feminist doesn't automatically make a movie good. And this plot needed a good dose of originality and solid well-written character development.

  • Leisha | August 28, 2012 4:32 PMReply

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  • grrljock | August 20, 2012 12:00 PMReply

    Thanks for cross-posting this interview. Yes, what I love the most about "Brave" is its depiction of the mother-daughter relationship. I hope that Brenda Chapman will write more movies.

  • MysticCrone | August 18, 2012 7:26 PMReply

    When I was a little girl, back in the time when dinosaurs roamed the Earth, I love stories of princesses. First it was Snow White, followed by Sleeping Beauty, and then Cinderella. The story was basically the same: evil female (witch, stepmother, stepsisters or all of the above) envies the princess beauty, curses the young lady in question and prince charming saves her. The princess' mother was usually nowhere to be seen. As anyone familiar with fairytales should know, women will kill for eternal beauty.

    Time passed and my interest in princesses waned. Maybe I realized I wasn't pretty enough or rich enough to ever become a princess. However, I got to see the wedding of a real princess on TV. Unfortunately, I learned that princesses didn't necessarily live happily ever after. Princes cheated with older, uglier and even married women. Princesses could get anorexic and even die in horrifying car accidents. Last time a princess got married on TV, I didn't bother to watch.

    Disney produced a slew of princesses who were supposed to be more modern and assertive. So while my nieces grew up I watched Ariel risked her kingdom and the life of her devoted father to get the boy prince she wanted. Belle was supposed to be beautiful but brainy but honestly, her taste in literature was doubtful consisting mainly of fairy tales. And OK at least she read but who cared, she was pretty. The one with the problem was the Beast. Jasmine was a spoiled child that was very aware of her sexuality and beauty and used both accordingly. She didn’t care about the politics of her kingdom or about her people. She just wanted to marry for love. Ew! Rapunzel was endearing but her story involved a wicked witch who kept her prisoner. The young princess hair had the magical quality of keeping people young and beautiful. Beauty again is the key.

    And then came Merida and with her, Brave breaks with many of the clichés of princesses' fairy tales. Merida is a pretty Scottish princess with a temper as fiery as her red hair. She is independent, strong, self-sufficient and a kick-butt archer. She loves both her parents but is always arguing with her mother, the Queen. Queen Elinor is trying to turn her daughter into a proper lady who will in the near future become queen. But Merida doesn’t want any of that. She wants to keep her independence and she doesn’t want responsibilities. So mother and daughter fight, argue and hurt each other on a daily basis.

    Brave is not the story of a princess in search of love. It is the story of a princess in search of herself. Merida is willful, a little selfish and does not realize the sacrifices that come with being the future queen. Yes, there is a witch in this movie. But she is rather funny, takes her trade very seriously and is not after any woman’s beauty. She does give Merida a spell to change her mother, but as we all know witches can be tricky so instead of changing the queen’s mind, the spell changes her body. The witch’s spell will take Merida into a path of understanding and knowledge. I like that witch.

    Merida gets into a lot of trouble when her mother transforms into a bear. And for the first time in a children’s movie we encounter the story of a heroine’s journey in search of her destiny. Daughter and mother (or bear) learn a lot from each other and finally get to walk in each other shoes. They have to help each other to survive. The climax of the movie gave me goose bumps. The King and his men are about to kill the queen thinking she is a dangerous bear and Merida gets between her father and mother. She picks a spear, points it to her dad and says: “I’ll kill you before I let you hurt my mother.” The only thing I could think of was wow, that is some strong statement and some brave girl. You see daughters and mothers don’t get to bond in fairytales. Princesses don’t confront their fathers, don’t know how to live by themselves in the forest and don’t snub princes. This princess does all of that and more. In the end Merida learns to understand and appreciate her mother and realizes the strong love that unites them.

    And no there is no prince charming at the end to sweeten the deal. Maybe love is in her future but she still is Merida, brave princess of her Scottish clan and the viewer knows she will be, when her time comes, a great queen. Thank God, in Brave, nobody burst out singing.

  • Marian | August 18, 2012 6:18 PMReply

    Terrific interview, Susan! Sharing link everywhere I can! Many thanks!

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